Thursday, June 25, 2015

Summer of my Netflix Streaming I: A Psychedelic Odyssey

It's the time of year when people come to me and say "Dude, how can you just sit there watching movies when it's so nice out??" Splayed upon the couch, limbs fecund with moss, I retort "duuuude, I'm going to get up any minute." They wait, but I do not stir. "OK, guess I'll go home," they finally say, "but I need some good Netflix recommendations. What should I watch tonight?" To this, I lurch forward in a great beverage-toppling spasm. "Welcome, then," I say, "to part three of a one part series: Summer of my Netflix Streaming; a psychedelic odyssey. Take two with grapefruit juice and call me in the void between six and sixtereen.

First Up:  Do you believe in death after life?  Roll the shizz, mon Scarab...

To remove your anxiety about what to watch in what order and when, I suggest you check all whatever of these in the order listed.. Empty your cue.... empty.... your....cue. By dawn things will make sinse (hic).

(2012) Hosted by Joe Rogan

Go Rick Strassman go-ooo--ohmmm! In case you were born in some inane, counterintuitive dimension where all the chemical shortcuts to spiritual enlightenment have been made into felonies, you should know Dr. Rick Strassman actually got official clearance by the government to do DMT studies in clinical trials. The results? Mind-blowing, of course, but inconclusive, equally of course. See this and answer the question only you can answer: is there really any difference between hallucination and reality? If what you experience in the DMT-verse feels a hundred times more real than your waking, consensual reality, then doesn't that mean--as quantum physics and bioverse theorists contend--it's realer?

The only answer is.

Even so, enough bad trips happened under Strassman's watchful eye that he now feels a little guilty for messing up so many minds. So is he a Pandora's box cutter, a modern messiah, an apex predator Albert Hoffman, or just a scientist who, like Dr. Eric Vornoff before him, tampered in God's domain?  Only the machine elves know for sure --and they only tell the silver spiders tat spin together crystal cities that cohere out of our universal thought web. Deep down, you sense you already know the answer, and you do. 

Heads talking include my boy Daniel Pinchbeck and that 'other'-other McKenna. There's lots of groovy Alex Grey art and deep hallucinogen-ready kaleidoscopes. Joe Rogan narrates while standing in front of a blackboard --for extra validity. (more from Tripumentaries)

See also: Ayuhuasca Vine of the Soul

(2009) Dir. Gasper Noe

Drifting around Tokyo's pinku parlors, orbiting the heated copulations and floating into light bulbs (like Hitchcock's POV if it didn't find its way out of the black tunnel connecting the drain with Janet Leigh's pupil in PSYCHO), we never know what the late Oscar's free-floating POV soul orb is thinking or trying to merge into (though we can guess, heh heh) Drawn to the gravity of the flaming sexual heat of the sidpa bardo's intertwined coupling, the film's/Oscar's disembodied POV drifts towards any old giant sun egg in which to be reborn, looking for the white light to absorb it/us into the 3D space time groove. But it/we find only the respite of 60 watt bulb lamps, black light art exhibits, frenzied and deserved narc-bashing, and sex that goes nowhere as far as reincarnation opportunities. The Oscar/our POV/soul matrix winds winding up floating off to the ceiling again and again, ever on the move, falling via the abortionist's knife, and bumbling onto passenger planes, floating along he way we used to walk around outside the Dead shows when we didn't have that miracle ticket, looking for that unlocked fence, that lax security guard... that one ripped condom, the missed pill.. (from: Die Like an Eagle) 

(1940) Start at the 7:32 mark (and avoid the 2000 version)

(From Acid Sound Symphony:) Walt Disney was determined to not just blow minds and thrill art lovers with his 1940 epic animated classical music film FANTASIA, but to bring what critic James Agee referred to as "middlebrow highbrow" culture to an America on the edge of war. It didn't work, but when re-released in 1969, FANTASIA caught on with a new kind of American at the edge of war, the dosed hippie draft dodger. Seen today, whether you love or hate it it really depends, however high you may be when you come in, what you're feeling, how loud the sound is, and how receptive you are to a non-linear narrative concept of this painterly magnitude. The wonderful thing about trippers, is that a long, nonviolent movie full of nonlinear painterly abstraction and music is like heaven. The big fear, having to leave your comfortable spot on the floor and face the downstairs neighbors. But with headphones cranking the Bartok, the colors dripping off the page, it's either transformative perfection or the movie equivalent of the chill out tent. Either way, now you can scroll ahead if a segment is tedious or too square. Your bound to find something, especially if you start watching at the 7:32 mark, to avoid the draggy intro, and stick with the original. 

Giorgio Moroder version 
(1927) Dir. Fritz Lang (new version1984)

With wild color tinting, sci-fi sound effects, and Giorgio Moroder's 'great' 80s rock soundtrack (w/ Pat Benatar and Queen among others), Moroder's often unjustly-forgotten FANTASIA style protean music video narrative is way more fun and engagingly goofy than the digitally restored super-long original cut (also on Streaming) that got a theatrical rerelease back in 2005 (I've seen 'em both on big screens). I know it's cineaste heresy but I think Lang would have roared in indignation-cloaked delight to see his 1927 sci-fi parable turned into a stoner rock musical instead of slathered in the orchestral pomp most versions use for their soundtrack. If he could see the genius in Jess Franco's SUCCUBUS, Lang could surely see Moroder's grandiloquent disco cocaine-shiver synth 80s synth grandeur is the perfect fit for his cast's Weimar-rabid frothing-at-the-mouth acting style and the sped-up herky-jerk of Karl Freund's silent 'crank' camera.

Great moments of rock synergy include the factory workers' FLASHDANCE-style pop anthem, and the upper class brothel debut of the robot Maria, which is given growling rock authority via Bonnie Tyler's "Sweet Jane"-chorded "Here She Comes." If only all silent sci-fi films were given such loving attention from synthesizer-twiddling Italian disco composers! You'll be wondering where lurketh thy holy copy of 1980's FLASH GORDON after this, for the two would be a great double bill. Some detractors say the story's harder to follow this way (it's condensed to a brisk 90 minutes), I say those people are just not high enough, and neither is their stereo. 

(1970) based on the book by Erich von Däniken 

The History Channel has been laden now for years with ancient alien-related programming and Erich von Däniken is there, but so is repetitive narration and whiplash editing and enough catheter commercials to give you panic attacks. But this is the original, the groundbreaker. The wild locations where Von Däniken found his archeological signifiers are still fecund with overgrowth, under-explored, and surrounded by indigenous tribespeople; von Däniken is obviously the first white man some of these natives have seen since the last 'god' came down. Shot on 16mm with the earthy 60s-early 70s In Search Of vibe, most all the talking heads are translated / dubbed (from German and Russian) giving a nice weird alienation affect. An illuminating highlight: some valuable footage of cargo cults in the Pacific help us understand the root of all religious thought, drawing such a clear parallel with sky cult Christianity you'd need to be blind no to see it. These natives keep watching the skies, praying for the return of the white brothers in their big silver birds and their cans of delicious peaches, if we want the aliens to land on the White House lawn, why don't we visit these islands again, drop off some canned goods and lighters, and thus kickstart the engines of sky god karma?

(2012) Starring: Yod, The Source Family

At one point does a divinely inspired lysergic-macrobiotic sage remember that way down deep he's just a lusty huckster?  Yaweh-O, or whatever Papa Bear's name in this incarnation, was a Gilgamesh-esque mountain man messiah and ex-bank robber who, like the greatest of modern gurus, was able to waken peoples' kundalini with just a touch or a glance. Alas, poor Yod, he was deluding even himself if he thought he could hang glide (he crashed and died). That's why my own spirituality will always stop short of wearing long flowing robes and divesting my worldly possessions. It's a curse as well as a blessing to be so wary and spiritual at the same time - it's only the twin signs like Pisces can do it, and we have no choice - we're never taken in totally, not even by our suspicions. Wether your kundalini sleeps or crawls, watching this crazy documentary and hearing these crazy beautiful starry-eyed people proves to be a solid trip that can charm your inner electric serpent into crawling up your spine and sparking off your third eye like an Olympic torch struck by a cobra bite strength tester hammer gong. (see also CinemArchetype Senex: The Sage)

And now... two episodes of STAR TREK 
1. "This Side of Paradise" (season 1, ep. 25) finds Kirk as the only member of the crew not bewitched by space poppies. Everyone who beams down on this certain Edenic planet becomes too happy and content to do anything but loll around in the sun and love one another. Kirk tries to convince them they need goals... and challenges... to evolve... as people, but the crew are too busy mooning over the flowers; it's not until he stirs their more violent emotions that they snap out of it. Turns out humans need to be miserable and angry to evolve, to move forward. Without negativity we lilies-in-the-field it like a bunch of blazed welfare bums.

And though we get cogent arguments for the validity of both sides, it's one of the earliest examples of Kirk seeming a killjoy, especially when Spock gets the closing line: "For the first time in my life, I was happy."

2. "The Way to Eden" (season 3, ep. 20) finds a band of itinerant space hippies trying various scams to convince the Enterprise crew to take them through the 'forbidden zone' to an allegedly pristine planet named Eden. The hippies include Charles Napier, on space guitar! He invites Spock to sit in and jam with the flower people. Spock does! ("He is not Herbert! We reach!") Vulcans, Spock explains, consider the way these groovy brothers and sisters live to be the highest form of sanity. But just as the Source Family found disaster following Father Yod to Hawaii in the last film, so this Eden planet carries its own tricky backhand bitch slap reward for their bucolic naiveté. (Sex, Drugs and Quantum Existentialism: The Acidemic STAR TREK Short Guide)

(1996) - Starring: insects (les bugs)

With all the machine elf aliens dancing and the dangerous space microbes and cosmic mind-altering spores of the last films still percolating in your toasted brain, let's, in the words of Steve Martin, get small. Without any music or narration, this day-on-the-leaf insect documentary provides the kind of 'close' reading nature's been primping for all this time. Finally, special cameras show how truly fucking bizarre insect interactions are. We see ants milking droplets of water they stole from clingy flea-style bugs; ants kicking ladybugs off their precious droplets, but gently... etc. This weird 'right under our noses' insight is what head trips are meant for. The utterly strange fractal aliveness of our world--what our mind usually screens out unless it recognizes a threat or a desire--is made suddenly front and center. Only as small kids were we attuned to the crazy scariness and odd joys of the insect community. Remember back when turning over a garden rock was like opening the door to a gross weird world? Was that before DDT wiped it all away, or did we just get too tall to see and too distracted to care?

Well, when you tune into the 'other' realms you get all that kid's eye view back, so let the bug show begin.

On the other hand if this gets too boring or gives you a minor dose of delirium tremens, skip ahead!

(2012) Dir. Don Coscarelli

What if those weird bugs from Microcosmos were also hallucinogens that let their user see through time and space and transmute dimensions? And other bugs were constantly taking over human hosts and killing them while preparing for a sixth-dimensional Lovecraftian tentacle crossover? Whaaat? Slow down, man. Thing about what you're slaying... 

Unlike Gilliam's Loathing, this is truly a film where the weird turn pro.

(2013) Dir Bob Smeaton

There's one thing that never gets old when you're super tripped-out, and that's the crunchy delicious sexually far out sounds of Hendrix's guitar. On good psychedelics, his blazing electric sound is one long warm, trippy current that zaps your saliva glands like patchouli lemons and makes all other music seem pointless (aside from Ravi Shankar and Otis Redding). Let it take your mind wild places, and wonder what new sounds might have come forth from his giant hands, if not for the always bad idea of mixing excessive Valium and alcohol.

In fact, I actually tried to go back in time to prevent Hendrix's death, as a kind of Reverse Terminator, but instead I just aged into oblivion. (see: Hippy in a Hell Basket - left)


From here of course you can greet the dawn's early light with The Other One, the Bob Weir Story; or the occasionally not pretentious and over-budgeted Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or you could go to bed. I mean, the sun's coming up, dude. People are getting up for work! They'll know! 

Too bad W.C. Fields isn't on Netflix because what you really need now is Never Give a Sucker an Even Break or International House, Mississippi or The Fatal Glass of Beer



If the walls start closing in, switch to this televisual equivalent of a Wavy Gravy chill-out tent immediately. This is way better than Bruce Dern handing you thorazine but insisting on touching your hand in a weird soft way when he does so, or Jack Nicholson and Adam Roarke melting into zombie monsters while trying to stop you from cutting off your own hand with a circular saw at 'the gallery'. Not that you ever would, because you're not a lightweight. And because you know when to change the channel on the escalating hellfire pit of Bruce Dern-handedness.

TELETUBBIES will save you!! It was designed to stop kids from crying so I think you'll be able to handle it bro, so nut up. 

Coming up Next in the Summer Series: "Post-Giallo Dream Logic"

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Manson Poppins: DEATHMASTER

The Age of Aquarius... remember when it dawned? Wast thou there in that dawning yawning chasm, a new kind of exploitation film to find? If you can keep your mind while everyone around you is losing their Hair --then Claude to the Zodiac amore; flowers in the heads and nails in their hands and minds of easily swayed runaways huddled shivery in the candle-lit squats of Haight, ready to follow anyone with long hair and confidence; one tin soldier writhing away in a mangy corner, writing what is only a masterpiece while the ink's still wet and his pupils too dilated to read. Girls with beautiful blonde straight hair dancing like Prakriti in the flames of Bruce Dern's burning sculptures and sister Strasberg's childhood treasure box, spinning like a sparkling pinwheel in that basement furnace memory. Old SF Haight-Ashbury or Laurel Canyon mansions with paisley-painted steps, cults emceed by shirtless longhairs with an eye for the young and clueless, bumpkins desperate to not seem so rube-like; ready to follow anyone who looked the part (fringe and facial hair) and deigned to feed and water them; Peter Fonda, wandering in search of lost Lenore or Salli Sachse; college campus foyers choked with seated radicals; dirty thrift stores and new age bookshops run by Dick Miller in a paisley vest.... Remember all that? Even if thou weren't thar? 

All of it, all of it gone, sliced away, by the arrival of the hard shit, meth, coke --the killers of empathy, the murderous exploiters of these pie-eyed specimens, the sexual predators following their nose from all points east towards the 'free love' they read about or saw on TV. Needy middle-aged male sex drives like a tidal wave of pollution rolling towards an Edenic spring. All it needed was a match and it would burn like the Cuyahoga River. Charlie Manson putting the lysergic blood hex on the forehead of the sleeping Virgin Tate through his remote control hot chick assassins; armed acidheads kicking up violent dove sediment as they snake upriver towards your peaceful Kurz-ish lagoon, their self-righteous conviction leaving the ears of the fatherless young exposed to the sound of the barefoot rainbowed piper (1). Anyone willing to lead them, be it off the lemming cliff, or into their parents' bedroom to write 'acid is groovy' on the walls in their baby brother's blood, anyone with long hair and confidence... all you have to do is take the consequences, and their money, if they have any. 

(They don't).

Just as the alchemical conjunction of the late 60s created the runaway shelter squatter cult free love commune utopia Woodstock, the early 70s was spent reeling from the gate-crashers at Altamont, who all wanted someone to give them 'the scene' they had envisioned when they ran away from home. Satanists, warlocks, scheming crooks, vampires, and the devil himself all put in bids after the parents put the older leaders--Leary, Ginsberg, Kesey--in jail, left them crucified on the altar of 'drug laws.' Timothy Leary in jail for 20 years for possession of two roaches; Ken Kesey forced to tell everyone the acid test was over and 'everybody passed.' To name but two. Yeesh, but was he so far wrong? Acid was too powerful a thing to be played with by dumbass 16 year-old hicks who could barely read a set list. Naturally, the minute they felt they were gonna die they went to the hospital - which is about the most stupid thing you can do on acid, and on acid if you do go through that spiritual / transformative death... if you just roll with it, you get to the other side where the bliss is. If you don't, bad trip city, the hospital is no place to come down. But if no one was there to tell these snots that, yeeesh. Yeeeeachhhh! Just thinking of these wallies now I can smell the mustiness of their flannels, their lame attempts at facial hair, their crap tattoos and terrible tie-dyes, the pleading puppy desperation behind their Saran Wrap-thin bravado.

Manson accepted them, when no one else would, and in the process stained the face of every long-haired date brought home late to worried-sick suburban parents in the early 70s. There were so many moonies, Hare Krishnas and other 'options' available that studying to be a cult deprogrammer seemed a viable career. Even in elementary school we were taught about brainwashing, although we had a pretty literal conception of it (I pictured it literally, the brain removed and massaged with soapy water - I didn't get how they could put it back in so easily, or where the soap went).

In 1978, Jim Jones replaced the occult-LSD hippie cocktail with cyanide Christian Kool-Aid as the cult beverage; but between '69-'77 cults were still signified by chants and robes-- Krishna to Zeppelin to Crowley to EST swirled together in a haze of drugs and chanting--and back in the dawn of the 70s even upscale college grads and suburban parents were opting for the communal living style (including my own aunt). And if some Pagan love rites were included, so be it. We even had a Parker Bros. Ouija board in the closet with the goddamned Monopoly. Who didn't?

Meanwhile, at the drive-in, the national post-Manson hippie backlash brought in a psycho guru murderous long haired cult gusher... Manson clones by the dozens, including this very special leader...

(1972) - Dir Ray Danton

The 'other' self-help guru vampire character Robert Quarry played in the early 70s (the first being COUNT YORGA) DEATHMASTER got no love from the critics of the era, who sneered at its dated look, but like a rainforest serpent crawling up from the depths of the Amazon Instant Video riverbed, it bit me at just the right time and place, and so I  love it. Also, the print on Amazon Prime looks damned good (which is--if you've surfed around down there you'll know what I mean--unusual in and of itself). It's special, man -- a real gem in the rough. All these screenshots are from it. Savor them, my children.

Lensed by the great DP, Bill Butler (JAWS, DEMON SEED) in countercultural AIP semi-documentary style, part Kovacs elaborate pull focuses, part Gordon Willis darkness and texture, the film might be a bit shoddy special effects wise but it looks great.  I dig that once the pre-credit coffin on a river sequence is over, you'd never even know it was a horror movie until around 45 minutes in. Before the biting starts, while the sun is out, Butler pulls focus along interweaving groups of bikers, free spirits selling trinkets outside at the 'Patagonia Market' parking lot, and that coffin being driven past in the back of an old pick-up fits-right-in, like 1968's PSYCH-OUT (which you'll remember also has a coffin) meets a non-musical HAIR divided by WILD ANGELS x BILLY JACK + an after school message movie where I was expecting William Shatner or Keith Carradine to up to deal 'death,' i.e. acid which is just as addictive as heroin according to, say, GO ASK ALICE (1973)

I think of course that that's the way all countercultural-aspiring movies should be watched, with no clue what genre they're even in. This happened to me with CULT OF THE DAMNED (1969), which I thought (due to Netflix's use of the wrong icon art) was about Jim Jones --I still think it is, even though Jones never shows up. Would the movie have blown my mind the same way, otherwise? No, but not knowing what the film you're watching is called, about or what genre it's in, is liberating. If something's a comedy, tragedy, horror film, anti-drug message movie, or parental paranoia exploitation film we come to it with pre-set expectations. Not knowing, but committing to the film anyway, as I did (I put it on, then forgot what it was, as I was writing some other post, it kind of sucked me in). I'd go so far as to say not knowing puts you in the mind of what acid is actually like when you're on it. (1) It's the same thing Antonioni was after in his films from L'AVENTURA onwards, or Godard, or Brecht... where our brain's habit of organizing random information and layering expectations on a story (going back to childhood with mom reading our favorite books over and over), is thwarted and altered, so our dusty grasp on a symbolic register vanishes and we see the lunch as the nakedness it is, so to speak, resulting in a kind of existential cosmic ecstasy.

On that note, since you might otherwise never notice this gem while paddling down the Amazon's datura root-webbed banks, be aware that the cover they use--with its faded monochromatic red bearded face like some hungry mental patient getting stabbed in his eyes with a thousand acupuncture needles--might be an instant turn-off, conjuring disheartening memories of 80s shot-on-video gorefests starring bearded fat guys in gore-stained bibs. It ain't like that, man. It's a safe place to hang out, get a free meal, read some of our groovy literature and maybe think about joining us at sunrise for morning chants. Interested? You just might find what you're seeking, and if that momentary joyous white light total acceptance cooks down to selling flowers barefoot in the street to keep our little family in tambourines, robes, candles, mushrooms, and dime store Dracula fangs, well, it's a chance to serve the cause. No matter how weak and susceptible not eating meat leaves you, granting the great leader your essence--your mortality's platelets and plasma--will actually give you life in his taking of it.

Only an idiot would say no to being bitten by love, by the source of eternal life and so DEATHMASTER needed an idiot, and for his sins, they sent him one. His name was Pico, and Bill Ewing was the actor (if that is the word) who played him.

(L-R: Reese, Jordan, Tree, Ewing, Dickson)
We first think DEATHMASTER is going to be a biker film (maybe it's the name of a chopper?) when old-school dirtbag Monk (William Jordan) brum-brums into town with his old lady Essine (Betty Anne Reese); his brusque savagery and thuggish behavior at the Patagonia Fair soon pits him against Billy Jack-style Kung Fu 'peacenik' straight-edge hippie Pico (Bill Ewing) and his girlfriend Rona (Brenda Dickson) who's secretly turned on by Monk's outlaw swagger. The much smaller Pico knocks Monk on his ass, but no hard feelings because they all end up on the run from the fuzz and Pico, ever the Zen dude, invites Monk and his chick up to this groovy squat, where the kids hang out.

Up there, in that house on the hill, these kids are making it work, you know, with no electricity but they got candles, love, and a big bowl of what looks like chicken nuggets. And while the kids sit around in the dim light there's a melancholy, haunting flute playing, slowly the buzz seems to dwindle, the gathering storm, the candles seeming to barely put a dent in the darkness. The flute gets more and more mournful. As the resident guitar guy, Bobby "Boris" Pickett says, "Hey what's happening? We're all hung up on some kind of gloom."

Pico, the ever square Paul Walker-esque narc conscience of the clan says "We're hung up all right, but always the same old thing, looking for our damn head, man"

Khorda, manifesting in the party, as yet unnoticed as anyone
other than another tribal scene maker

Rona: (singing like nursery rhyme taunt): His head, his head, Pico can't find his head!
Pico: (wearily) round and round we go
Khorda (unseen, a voice in the shadows behind Pico, sitting cross-legged, having just kind of appeared in the dark morass of hippies, not speaking directly to them but in that same offhand to no one in particular way close-knit groups have of batting ideas around, like he's a teacher in the Socratic style)
... like living in limbo
Pico: yeah, that's it- - a treadmill
Khorda: ... gets to be a bore.
  Pico: Right, a goddamn mother lovin' bore.
 Khorda: The thing to do is to break away... find  a purpose
 Rona: I got a purpose --love... (gets up, starts  dancing around)
 Khorda: Love power... something to cherish. To  hang onto.... But to know love one must first be  alive... live
 Pico: That's just my point, we ain't living.
 Khorda: Perhaps you need a spark, to light the  fuel within
 Pickett - Far out - you mean like a miracle or  something?
 Khorda: why not? (Claps hands - lights come  on)
Rona: Did you see that? What's with that guy?
Pico: Hey man, this is a weird scene!

(they pause, notice the flute player, Barbado [LeSesne Hilton] a big-afroed zombie-type, blowing like a hypnotized cobra /snake charmer combo all the while, casting the gloom mood in the first place most likely)
Bobby Pickett: What's with him?
Khorda: He's achieving his future 
(Barbados continues his memsmerizing drumming)
A hippie: Get in there, Barbados (Barbado keeps playing)
Another hippie: Yeah. Lay it down, man

The kids begin gather wide-eyed around Khorda, like he's Manson Poppins, wanting him to say more, man. Say more about the stars and love and the power of purity of essence (POE). Fix the place up first, he says. Clean house and switch to an all-living things diet (like a vegan Renfield) and he'll be back later to discuss further the ways of things. 

Then, dig it, baby, he vanishes

It's like whoaThe 'now generation' patter continues once the cleaning montage is over. 

If I could I'd write it all down, I wouldn't, cuz it's so spot off it might lose its essence. When he returns, Khorda says he's from 'The Isles of Maybe" and languidly picks apart a flower, accusing its beauty of a conceit "as ephemeral as man's wish for immortality." 

But then he loses his cool over Monk's iron cross pendant. Ain't nothin' holy 'bout that cross, Khorda! What does Khorda do at a KKK rally cross burning, have a stroke? If he's going to find god there he may just as well shrink from a tire jack. Fuck this bullshitter, says Monk, and announces he's going out for some steak... and some whiskey!! Damn right. Seeing this, again kind of randomly--still not sure what it even was--I rose up and cheered. I generally dislike bikers in AIP films as they're always destructive rapists, but sometimes they speak much wisdom. Like Heavenly Blue's telling the priest they want to get loaded in THE WILD ANGELS.

But there's something amiss that Monk, for all his abrasiveness and thick stupidity, is hep to, reminding us of the speech about 'needing the assholes' at the end of TEAM AMERICA. When Khorda returns with Barbado, this time playing the conga, he puts the bite on Essine, and the kids hear her scream upstairs. Where is she? They run up to investigate. When they come back down, Essine's there dancing. The music "consecrates them to immortal life." But the second sign something is wrong is that Khorda doesn't like when you try to skip out on the scene. He's made his move, and shit just got mad fascist, that quick. 

Like any effective cult, you only realize there's a trap once you're already trapped.

Pico and Rona figure they better split fast, especially once everyone else starts dancing too--in slow motion!!  Khorda is taking them outside time-space, as any good guru is wont to do, and the scene with them dancing in slow motion, as normal-time Pico and Rona watch aghast, carries a uniquely weird druggy vibe that lets you know, yes, Khorda may be sucking the blood of today's youth, but unlike Nixon and everyone else doing it less literally, Khorda is delivering the spiritual goods in exchange --he does make them immortal. 

The trick of all gurus of course is that, once you surrender your will and believe whole-heartedly in the cause, you do feel a deep egoless bliss and connection to the eternal now. It's liberating. But at what cost?!? You've also just let someone else take over your whole existence, and now you can't escape the guru's clutches even if you realize you're now a slace. You need your parents or someone to come rescue you in the dead of night, whisk you back to Iowa and hire a capable deprogrammer.... or send you to a 90-day detox facility if we're talking an addiction metaphor...  sheesh, nevermind. What a choice.

Now a small

You see them every day, on the street, their hollowed out eyes, rotting teeth, dirty clothes, pock-marked skin, abscess arms... the shivering, pleading, twiching. Hoping for one more shot to take them through the day. Well, now you can be their hero. Now YOU can make a difference in some poor junky's life. For just $300 a day, that's less than the price of a small car, you can help a junky get the sustenance he needs. 
Won't you give.... all you can? Including your TV?

Aside from the excellent cinematography by Butler, what makes DEATHMASTER so supreme in the annals of AIP horror-hippy hyrbridization is the marvelously off-the-wall cast and their unholy raiment: Like Dean Stockwell in PSYCH-OUT, Ewing's long black hair/bangs/Native American headband combo is probably an all-in-one wig leftover from AIP's western unit (it may even be the same one). His pretty face resembles a young Robert Conrad, and though he can't act, his bi-polar veering from super-hammy to super-low key finally pays off when he 'snaps' into a weird bug-eyed maniac at the climax. 

As his girlfriend Rona, Brenda Dickson has these big expressive blue eyes, n Ellen Burstyn meets Jaclyn Smith facial structure, and a lithe, pale midriff that all combines to make her accessibly naive girl-next-door accessible yet sexually mature and strangely cool all at once. Her eyes dilate with desire and contract with concern when appropriate; she seems genuinely thrilled to be on camera, no matter in what capacity, all but fluttering and twirling around the periphery of any group scene. Her infectious energy seeps into the corners of the film like helium and lifts the whole first swath of the film into a strange world where you don't know what you're watching. It could be a Billy Jack vs. bikers movie, it could be a youth in revolt kinda thing, a romantic soap, an after-school special, a valentine to the Santa Monica Pier flea-market, you just don't know. 

Alas: she disappears for most of the second swath, the 'Khorda shows his fangs' secton, and her absence creates an anxiety in young Pico that we feel too. It helps motivate his return to the house, the way Valeria's death in CONAN or Kim Cattrall's in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, helps us thirst for a return to the dragon's den, a final fight, despite our feeling the hero is delusional and outgunned. 

As the Van Helsing of the piece there's Pop (voice of Pooh) Fiedler, a mousy middle-aged little balding capitalist in a hippie vest and sandals. An iffy father figure/librarian to the kids in the neighborhood, it's to him Pico runs when he realizes the truth about this suave new guru.

Naturally, when some long-haired faux Native American boy barges into your store, foaming at the mouth and raving about vampires, you just assumes he's having a really bad trip. You find him a beanbag in the back so he ride out the peak in relative safety. Maybe you give him an orange, keep the music earthy, electric and soulful, and let the trip run its course til he's sane enough to walk out on his own power. 

But you don't believe him.... do you?

I mean, who hasn't been tripping at a party and had some hip, charismatic know-it-all older dude show up and--with a single eight-ball of coke--turn what was only an hour ago a  'peace and electric love' mammalian group mind happening' into a 'dirtbag-studded festival of foamy-mouthed sex-obsessed reptilian egotists'?  You figured you were with your tribe and safe for the night, and quick as you like your tribe had joined the evil clan, and sk so you had to run, disillusioned, disoriented, scared, freaked out and confused, into the night you presumed yourself safe from navigating? I used to rant myself hoarse trying to convince Johnny Spliff that his perennial townie couch guest Doug E. Fresh was a crank-snorting dirtbag who could give him nothing but IOUs, lowered whiskey levels, and hep-C. Johnny would just look at me slack-jawed and do nothing. He was an easy mark. For us both, I guess. But I was cleaner!!  And bought whiskey! Suddenly I had to find a different couch to crash on.

It was a nightmare.

Believe it or not, Pop's convinced, eventually, (his dog gets drained of blood as a warning) and soon they're examining a paperback on magical cults through the ages together. Ah, used bookstores on the west coast! Those same books are probably still there, well-thumbed and never purchased by the dirty broke Santa Monica flower children, now grown paunchy and burnt out. 

Dude, I bought a used paperback of Gravity's Rainbow at one of those bookstores, and was raving to my friend Beth about all the reptilian comfortable-in-their-own-skin evil swine around us at Reggae on the River out in Humboldt County, CA, summer of 1990. She thought I was hallucinating too. Why wouldn't she listen?? I barely understood a word of Pynchon's prose but I kept reading all through our road trip, hoping she would be impressed. She wasn't. She stuck with Robertson Davies. It was the summer of 1990, there was a massive draught so no campfires were allowed, and Operation Green Sweep was in full effect. Ever try to camp without a campfire, or enjoy reggae without weed, or share close quarters while traveling platonically with a gorgeous Connecticut hippie girl? Or read an 800+ page book with no comprehension of its presumedly rich historical subtext, in a time before internet or cell phones to look up dates and big words? On shitty acid? It would have been enough to make anyone see vampires everywhere. I was ready to drown myself, but could barely afford enough whiskey to make it worth the drive into McKinleyville. And--worse--if I did, when I got it back to camp, the seagulls would descend, all those thirsty hippie mouths. Or were they more like vampire bats? Every drop of that 1.75 of Ten High should have been coursing through my grateful bloodstream instead of theirs. But I was too young to be selfish. Either way, no matter how much got I drunk, it never was enough. I'd just pass out and when I woke up, the same misery + interest was waiting for me -- and not a drop left.

If a Khorda came for me then, I would not have wavered in my surrender. If he bought me steak and whiskey.

And that brings us to the final marvelous performance in the clan - the 'adult' in the group, the great Robert Quarry. As COUNT YORGA he played self-help guru to a slightly older and richer enclave of California swingers, but there's apparently no relation to his incarnation here, which is fine, because I like this film much better than either of those (probably thanks to the great Butler cinematography). Though I know full well even the RETURN OF COUNT YORGA is far better reviewed than DEATHMASTER. I am not swayed.

Cinematography makes all the diff.

Quarry, for his sins, doesn't ham it up or phone it in until the very end, but when the time comes, look out. He drops one of the fakest and worst evil laughs-turned-screams in horror history, which is followed almost immediately by Ewing's wild-eyed farewell to Lorna, where he seems to be passive-aggressively sabotaging his own already incompetent performance like it's the 100th take and the director's been screaming at him all day and--rather than finally getting it right--he just snaps and does a burlesque mockery of the director's instructions. And the director thinking it's better than what he was getting in the first 99, calls it a wrap. Not a great way to go out, but hey!! The photography is beautiful. 

His name isn't fresh in the zeigeist like James Wong Howe or Vilmos Zsigmond, but it should be. Even with something as innocuous as Deathmaster, it's easy to see why Bill Butler would go on to be considered--by the people in the business--one of the best, and winning two Oscars. There's a kind of Gordon Willis'Godfather-style earthen duskiness at work here in this crazy hippie house and Santa Monica scene. He catches more than a few great magic hours, and that abrupt switch from the PSYCH-OUT hippie house vibe to full on psychedelic uber-cheap vampire film is well turned, becuase it all looks so good it catches you off guard. Rather than anticipating what's happening next, you fall into a state of aesthetic arrest. 

All that said, there are many annoying things about the iflm, like that Pico is such a genius with booby traps but then forgets to use his kung fu on Barbado, twice, and forgets he managed to defeat him the first time by just painting a cross on his chest in blood. Also, like so many idiot vampire hunters, he never even thinks about bringing a real cross with him, or to bring a priest instead of the cops, fucking narc that he is.

I kept hoping that it would turn out that the only way to defeat Khorda would be for Pico go get a crew cut and a job. That would have been so cherry, bro. 

Well, you can't have everything.

But, if you have Amazon Prime and a tolerance for plastic fangs, you can have 90 minutes with the DEATHMASTER. May the joy it bring add fruitful notes to your blood's bouquet! Ave Santa Sangrardo! 

1. see my story of tripping to FLATLINERS

Friday, June 12, 2015

It's Not what it looks Like: HONEYMOON, FORCE MAJEURE

"This was supposed to be romantic under the stars, not sheets."
In the old days, before cable, VHS and Betamax entered the affordable mainstream, there was something called memory. Films were subject to the warping effects of 'telephone game' oration, passed around like recess versions of campfire tales. Once the film had left theaters it was at least a year sometimes two before it would show up on TV, usually premiering at 8 PM on a major network, where it was panned, scanned, edited for content and time, cut up by commercials, subject to possible static from weather formations above our aerial antenna. Those who saw it on the big screen could then argue over what was missing, what was added, what they remembered that no one else did. People just assumed the 'good' parts were gone... which for us kids meant gore, breasts, and curse words. There was no way to know for sure what you saw by then - and anyway things can always be edited from some prints, not others, and memories themselves often recorded what wasn't, even in the moment - seeing what it thought it would see vs. what was shown.

Look into his false-colored eyes! (HONEYMOON)

Then there were some films, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1972) or Clockwork Orange (1971), that could never, no matter how much they edited them, ever be shown on TV. In the pre-VCR era this meant no one ever saw them again outside of their possible revival at the tail end of a drive-in triple feature, which meant never. Loaded with dread-by-scarcity, those who did see them were considered gods, the bad kids, a badge of cool like smoking or sex. Even if you were lying and we knew it, if you made up something believable and riveting, hey - you were a star. There was no need to even go into the gore or horror involved in those - as if remembering them alone would be too much, that the shock had created a block on your recollective power, putting them into the same category as traumatic childhood primal scene-stumblings or Satanic Ritual Abuse.

Now of course things are better, film-wise, to a point. Nearly all films from Edison onwards are all available all the time, unedited and in original aspect ratios on big widescreen HD TVs. It's such a great era for movies that there has to be negative side effects. For example, gone is the freedom to lie, to hide truth, to imagine a better movie than really exists, to change the narrative along according to our perceptions, instead of the other way around. We might get six different versions of the same film on our DVD set, choosing the R, NC-17, unrated versions. Still, no actual film gore or violence can compare to our lurid imaging. Now, however, our imagination is cut off at the pass and next time it comes around, we can't imagine as lurid as the movie anymore. We've lost the thread.

Two recent films on Netflix streaming, the indie horror movie Honeymoon (2014) and the Nordic import Force Majeure (2014), offer diegetic examples of these negative side effects. Each relies on a certain cinematic familiarity, a common shared iconography that can then collapse as characters within each film are continually forced to confront their own helplessness in the face of real events vs. their instilled and conditioned expectations that they can somehow change what happened through denial or secrecy. In Majeure, an upscale Nordic family's Alpine ski vacation is momentarily interrupted after an avalanche blowback whiteout that rolls over the outdoor brunch patio. Most people don't move or worry but it causes the father to run inside in a panic, leaving wife and kids to fend for themselves (though he might presume they were following him). The whiteout clears, brunch resumes, the father returns like nothing's happened, but the mom's faith in him is destroyed. He only exacerbates her distrust when he tries to remember it differently, to deny and convince her of a different set of facts.

Thanks to ever-present cameras, the white-out can no longer occur in memory instead of recorded image, not in this era, not when the elephant in the room has been identified and deflated, and no one can smoke, be mean to minorities or homosexuals, or otherwise trod carelessly over other people's feelings. He can't change her mind with a loud and forceful "ENOUGH!" and get her to change the subject. In this recorded age he has no power to shape the social construct to his will, and he gets slapped for flinching from each previous slap.

In Honeymoon, the first date of a couple is jointly recalled as taking place at an East Village Indian restaurant that leads to the man, Paul (Harry Treadaway) puking, trapped by food poisoning vertigo on the studio apartment floor of Bea (Rose Leslie). This weakness on his part binds him to her, and their wedding reception has Indian food which they address directly in their video (the movie begins mostly as their wedding / honeymoon video diary): "You tried to keep us apart. Fuck you, Indian food... we win." Yeah, right. Indian food played you like a putter.

Any sane person watching this already senses something is seriously wrong. Paul is just doing a longer range version of what the dad in Majeure does, submitting to a repetition-compulsion complex until the ugly memory is contextualized as triumph. Poisoning is an old trick used by nurses and cooks with a yen for Munchausen by-proxy to weaken and ensnare those they want to keep dependent. As their video progresses, Paul and Bea's intimate talk always seems to weave it's way back to puking, as if it's a trigger that disrupts what should be danger signals in his brain, that something's 'not right.' The puking triggers a skip in the record where normal good judgment normally functions.

Paul should take it as a sign to run - but he's a good guy and good guys don't run (right, Majeure dad?). So Paul rebukes the omen, reconfigures it. The wedding tent for example, seems like a shroud --we never see anyone else in the confessional booth but them - does Bea even have any other family? If she doesn't, Paul never finds out, until it's too late. MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!

For their honeymoon, Bea brings him to her family's cabin up in Canada, where one of the duck decoys has her childhood note in it "Dear ducks - I am not a real duck --stay away." Of course it's too late by then. And whether and what she means, outside of trying to sabotage the very purpose of a decoy (as in to draw ducks to it), he doesn't know, and neither do we, and that's how history --family, marriage, self, individuality, civilization --slips its bonds, like Jack Torrance sliding into a New Years 1928 Gold Room while simultaneously freezing to death (in a white-out) in 1980.

 employs a nice 'suggestion' of a POV home movie, via a Steadicam that whips around the woods and fuses with the opening wedding video, but then it subtly switches over to regular film (or professionally-shot HD ), and soon after that switch is mirrored in the film itself, as this two person isolation takes its toll in paranoia and dysfunction. It becomes another collapse of the social sphere in that uber-paranoid honeymoon Antichrist meets Zulawski's Possession symptom-laden symbolist collapse. The paranoia itself ends up giving "birth" like a virus to some weird The Hallow x  Dagon x The New Daughter x Invasion of the Body Snatchers amphibian reality (or do I just feel that way as 60% of my friends in real life mysteriously married Canadians?)

You don't need a government to make you paranoid. Sometimes all it takes is a Force Majeure, i.e. an avalanche, or worse, a woman...

Good as they both are in their way (I saw them back-to-back on a rainy Sunday on Netflix), neither Majeure nor Honeymoon should be seen on a first date, or even a last. But they do make a great double feature, a before and after of the pros and cons of marrying into the royal reptilian bloodline. Majeure could be the sequel ten or so years after Honeymoon where, instead of a nice redhead hipster revealing herself to be a frigid Innsmouth fishwife, there's a father ostracized by the mom for a single moment of weakness, a whole man resented for the slightest of perceived offenses. Filmed for maximum geometric thermal dynamics, the film, floats squarely in the middle of the Alps, a place that seems inordinately hostile to human life, so that skiing and all the other human 'recreation' is made almost absurd-- like sandcastles in front of a tidal wave. The husband's response (i.e. fleeing) is completely 'natural' of course. It's not until the mom herself overreacts to a moment of perceived crisis towards the end, on a steep dangerous bus ride down the mountain (the precipice dropping below the bus's massive windows) that the balance can be redressed.

Is the wife's problem with her man the fleeing, or that he won't cop to his moment of cowardice? In refusing to remember his flight, maybe blocking it out via subconscious mechanisms he can't control, he's like a kid who just won't admit he stole something to the point of pathology. But she's worse, in that this is a vacation and it's a minor thing but she just can't let the matter drop. Within minutes of the whiteout, brunch is back to normal, with only a thin layer of powdered snow on the plates and coffee surfaces to indicate it was ever there... but she can't forget, and he won't remember. If it wasn't so common in the US (a similar rift forms in the family of Escape from Paradise), one would think the film was overreacting on her behalf. But watching the film it seems pretty natural you'd run for the door and presume your family's behind you rather than run to them to --what-- shield them with your body to make sure you're both buried and suffocate? Either way, as in Contempt, the woman uses this small event as a scratcher to some incoherent deeper itch, trying to test and provoke and de-masculinize the man she married. Vacations bring out the worst in people. It's why I don't, personally, like them.

In Honeymoon the de-masculinization comes from the complete ignorance of some kind of strange Lovecraftian de-evolution in his new (to almost stranger) young wife. The nightmare begins on the honeymoon as she keeps postponing sex and then intensifies when he wakes to find her outside the lonely cabin in the dead of night, naked and with underwear covered in frog egg-style slime. The answer to the mystery of why she needs to be constantly reminded of the most basic things--like her name--begs the question: did he find the right 'thing' when he found her, or is this some amphibious clone pod person changeling, one able to hold the pose of a human for only so long? Is it all paranoid blue ball madness (ala dodging honeymoon 'duties' as if she was hiding her own penis or venereal disease) or is it just that she wants to hook up with this guy down the hill she knows from childhood?

With the semi found-footage approach we never learn any of the answers, except maybe hottie young director Leigh Janiak would like some Paranormal Activity profits or delayed Bug acclaim. She deserves both, taking the same male-female approach (her boyfriend Phil Graziadel co-wrote) that works so well in both films. As with all great horror, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish reality from the vividly imagined the longer we're away from consensual reality, i.e. on vacation in the middle of nowhere, without a stable of normal social others. When there are cops, EMTs--even enigmatic gas station attendants, doe-eyed librarians, lunch-eating coroners--to modulate any accruing cabin fever derangement, we see just how easily escaped are the bonds of a consensual social order.

We might even realize the truth in the process, a truth all couples must accept sooner or later: there never was a consensual social order- it's all just phantoms and shell games. There is, indeed and inescapably, no such thing as objective reality. There is just a shared delusion, a Rashomon-style collective cubist stigmatism. Couples delude themselves that swinging will work when all else fails, or kids, or marriage, or all of it, and then blame themselves, then each other, when it doesn't. Then they accept it. Or die. They die either way, actually.

Oh yeah, and there's the
Successive de-evolution of the masculine father 
in the post-industrial age. 

Sometimes kissing a girl is enough to tingle a man down to the toes. Sometimes he has to keep digging deeper, removing more clothes, grinding closer, just to get the same tingle, approximated or facsimile. He becomes like a relentless miner dredging with his lips for that tingle. Sometimes even after sex he still doesn't get the tingle, so then maybe without a condom? You know, to feel something? Anything? If that doesn't work, then tell her we love her. She loves us, too? Does that help with the tingle? Uh-oh. No, still no tingle. Then marriage. Still no tingle - so kids. On and on, when with the right girl a single kiss would have been good enough to know, for sure, electricity existed.

A smart man would run when that tingle's not there.. A smart man would have run way back at the first lack of tingle, wouldn't have let the Indian food puking sway his better sense, the whole biolgical code is all just there in the kiss. But just the thought of running is cowardly, what a frat murph asshole dude does (since if she's willing you may as well dredge as deep as you can while you can, right bro?)

Still, trying so hard to make it work, the old tingle-deprived misery surfaces like a toadish reminder of all the tingle's that never came. Better keep trying with what you got than just go back to that amphibious nil. After all, maybe it's we who are the problem, not her. Anyway we're not 'that' type of guy, the type who cuts and runs. Fuck you, Indian food.

Honeymoon is not perfect, but it is well-acted, especially by Rose Leslie who manages to look less and less like a human being and more like a bug in the way only certain red haired facial types look when you're looking at them while on, say, enough acid that their small almond chin below their fast talking mouth begins to look like two mandibles moving like a mantis dismantling an unseen fly with sewing machine precision. I applaud that Honeymoon sees that mandible effect too and doesn't need to CGI in actual mandibles, and it doesn't take a post-modern approach like, say, Intervention. It has the courage of its Lynchcraftian convictions. As the film leads to a full blackout just as Force leads to pure whiteouts, there are no easy answers or even coherent questions. None of us in couples ever knows who the other is, or who even we are. Why we should have presumed a 'normal' existed to begin with is anyone's guess (unless it's that we believed the TV).

But then, well the nightmare question that no recent remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dare ask (there wouldn't be a movie if they did): in a land where no one stays the same, moment-to-moment, at a time marked by no set shared cultural touchstone (thanks to a proliferation of screens and mediums), in a culture driven by myopic narcissism and cultivated shallowness, and shaped only a a ground zero infinity of film history, how would we ever know if our loved ones were supplanted by pods? When the white powder fog clears the brunch deck, or the black-out clears the bedroom, worrying if our mate is the same person before the outage occurred isn't even in our top ten anxieties.

Every minute we stick around is a minute we're not running for our lives.

What or who we're running from is irrelevant when there's so many goddamned directions to choose from. Netflix Boulevard crawls with them, so why feign rootedness? Where is the fleeting urgency to slow down? Our monster monsoon has waited long enough in heaven's white-padded room. Let it come down and eclipse the infinity of our perception so we might once more behold the outline of that dirty finite door. Let us be washed away in high floating style. Bitches be full of tricks. We can stay and be buried or be free and frozen in the Torrence's bit-torrent maze.

Beyond the Door II is, after all, just another name for Shock.

Friday, June 05, 2015

International Hawksblocker: HATARI!, RED LINE 7000

Howard Hawks fans like myself expect motif repetitions: if something works in one Hawks film, you can be damn sure he's going to use it again, and why not? His riffs and motifs strike deep archetypal tones that generate invigorating mythic resonance, especially when they concern men facing death in the service of some grand quest. Whether flying mail over the Andes, blazing the Chisholm Trail, helping save a bunch of ranches from a slimy war profiteer, or just defending the North Pole against some kind of super-carrot, Hawks' men in a group are the men you want to be running around with; their charisma and overlapping witty banter is intoxicating. But there can't always be wars, or endangered ladies, or murderers in jail with rich brothers trying to bust them out, or pilots trying to land in ceiling zero fog, or mighty herds to be driven through a Civil war-torn wilderness rife with border gangs, or a dame whose nympho kid sister is ensnared in the disappearance of her elderly father's IRA-expat drinking buddy. What do these brave death defiers do then? Do we still cheer their risk-taking even if it's just for kicks and/or cash? 

That's what it boils down to: underlying motive. The stuff that makes a hero in one situation is just a death-wish-ridden adrenalin junkie in another. Without a worthy cause, Hawks' men-in-a-group are far less mythic. There's no nobility in driving super fast around a track, or capturing and caging wild, noble animals for lifetime confinement in zoos. The risk is purely for the risk, purely for the rubes entertainment, which might hit the viewer--slack-jawed in his recliner at two in the morning-- a little too close to home. 

So it is thaat Hawks' later non-western films reveal the less-heroic side of heroism, the urge to find danger somewhere, anywhere. The resulting 'adventures' reveal the sociopathic side of Hawks' masculine camaraderie. We Hawks fans realize his protagonists may be less honorable, far less 'cool' than we thought once they have to adjust to civilian life.

 Hawks, as we know, flew biplanes with Faulkner in WWI. He hunted and fished with Hemingway and NASCAR raced with Gary Cooper. He's clearly a 'rugged' outdoors thrill seeker. Maybe due to some repetition compulsion disorder, some existential PTSD lingering forever after adopting the "hurrah for the next who dies" approach to impending mortality while in the Signal Corps. (WWI being, let us not forget, before the full development of parachutes). For all his bravado, the Hawks male is still stuck at the Russian roulette table in Hanoi.  He's still signing up for another tour in Iraq's detonation squad like in THE HURT LOCKER.

Hawks made very few bad films in his long career (far fewer than John Ford) and yet he receives far less lionization. The press tend to think of his best work more in terms of the stars that were in it (there's no 'Hawks box' DVD set), thus BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT are in the Bogie-Bacall box; ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and HIS GIRL FRIDAY are in the Cart Grant box, etc. Part of this might be that Hawks' personal stamp is harder to discern, so comfortable is he across a spectrum of genres, sometimes mixing genres within a single film; another part, that his iconoclasm kept him independent, signing with studios for three picture deals or getting financing from this or that outfit; no studio is able to claim him, the way Columbia claims Capra, Paramount claims Lubitsch, MGM Minelli, or Fox Ford. Still, when many of us list our top all-time favorite films, Hawks takes up at least half the top twenty. My list does at any rate.

But, by the mid-1960s we had come a long long way from Hawks' prime. He was old --perhaps less clear-eyed about what true courage was. Nonetheless, even the last last few films in his oeuvre reward study, if only to further discern the pros and cons of his recalcitrance. I've already analyzed one of his very last comedies, MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT? (see: Fear of Fishing), and now....

1962 -  **1/2

This the one with John Wayne lassoing --and having his jeep butted by--charging rhinos, fleeing giraffes and snorting wildebeests. Africa + Wayne = how can it fail? Wayne and Hawks, these old dudes, were really out there doing this crazy shit! But it can fail nonetheless, at least for some of us. Why? Blame it on the Buttons. And other things. 

The problems start with the supporting cast, continue with subject matter and end with the subtext. As with Hawks' very last film, Rio Lobo, he saddles the Duke up with a bunch of young unknowns, some from other countries, or sons of friends, and these youngsters can't always capture the finer points of group camaraderie or erudite cocktail hour wit the way, say, Wayne could with Dean (Martin), or Mitchum (Sr)., or Montgomery Clift (honey). And there are very slim pickings in the way of cool Hawksian women. In fact, there aren't any. Was Hawks too old to pick 'em and build 'em from the ground up, training their voices to go deeper, light cigarettes cooler, and not refuse drinks like little bitches? 

That's what hurts the most. 

Of the two women in Hatari, French actress Michèle Girardon is a bit too mother-earthy as ranch owner Brandy, and Italian model Elsa Martinelli (as a visiting photographer who hooks up with Wayne) shows all the emaciated signs of either fever or an eating disorder, making her regular refusal of cocktails all the more painful and buzzkilling (as Don Birnim says "in the morning it's medicine! Haven't you learned that yet?"). Nothing kills the mood like a person who is so miserable and you know one drink and they'd be the life of the party, but they just say no, and sulk, and wonder when you're coming up to bed. Then come downstairs every hour or so to glare at you as you slowly kill all available bottles. 

The ration girls to men is absurd and all the men are either too old or too short, or both. Brandy is shared by diminutive German actor Hardy Krüger (who wears a little pair of khaki shorts shorts so we can see his bandy little legs) and lil' froggy Gérard Blain. Valentin de Vargas (he played the leather jacket-wearing ball-having "Pancho" Grande in Touch of Evil) is OK though, and--in the type of cigar-chewing role usually reserved for Ward Bond or George Kennedy--Bruce "Kong-block'" Cabot is "the Indian." So there's them, but they don't scintillate. 

Now, I have nothing against international casts, but if English is not your first language it can be hard to sound breezy and conversational while delivering a mouthful of brilliant Leigh Brackett dialogue. I mean this as no reflection on the actors themselves, only that the international vibe might be what Hawks or the distributors wanted but--we who love Hawks' unique ability to bring witty overlapping dialogue to a group brave and skilled men and witty deep-voiced, cigarette and scotch and soda women--don't like to see what we like to see taken away by bad casting decisions. These actors just can't deliver the overlapping lines fast enough, or with enough zip, nor do they know what words to emphasize so the dirty jokes come across. It's like asking Paul Henreid play Oscar Jaffe or Walter Burns. Sure, Henreid is great but he simply can't talk fast enough and with enough tail-flap flair to get lift-off. 

There are perks to be found in the margins: the memorable Henry Mancini score ("Baby Elephant Walk" comes true) and the lack of stunt doubles being the top two. We can assuage our guilt over the animal abuse by the knowledge Wayne and company had the guts to do all their own animal-wrangling; there's no rear screen projection and no stock footage of any kind ("of any kind, David") and it makes a huge difference. Compare it something like MGM's Tarzan series (which relied on all three) and the many scenes of the groups' complex hunting strategy as their vehicles roar across the plains, driving vast herds before them, really sparkle in the African dust, revealing the film's clear influence on, amongst other things, Spielberg's Jurassic Park: The Lost World

I like some other things at play here too: the leisurely cycle of the film follows, say, Hemingway's first person accounts of safaris, like Green Hills of Africa, where the book is divided into hunting on the plains by day and drinking/conversing at night; the cycle of animals and drinks, hunts and conversations, as natural and easy as the progression of drinking life itself. 

But this time--rare for Hawks--it's the night part, the drinking, that fails. Breeziness and camaraderie are a hard thing to force.

I could forgive that forced feeling, maybe, but it's harder to forgive after trying all day to shake the bad vibes of watching these wild and free animals terrorized and forced into a lifetime of captivity. Surely, such behavior is the anathema of heroism. 

But I can even forgive that.  

But what I cannot forgive is the presence of something far worse than bad vibes or forced joviality. It's something so odious, so vile and unspeakable, no forgiveness is possible.

And that thing is a hirsute little ham named Red Buttons.

Red Buttons, the original red-headed stepchild... I love his convulsive dance marathon heart attack in They Shoot Horses Don't They? But in Hatari! there's no need to ask which animal I'd like to shoot first.

Sure he's got a kind of Rooney-like Arthur Murray tenement hoofer grace to his burly hobbit movements, but his hammy cowardice and passive aggressive cockblocking drag the joie de vivre down over the film's wings like a steel mesh net. Endlessly showboating, whining, blowing up one of the blazing hot Serengeti's last acacia trees, solely in order to abduct a whole tribe of monkeys who live in its branches, and then getting drunk that night and refusing to let anyone else talk about anything but how he was too scared to watch his big moment of triumph... oh my God!  He's as un-Hawksian as it's possible to get.

Imagine if you parachuted Jerry Lewis down into Casablanca, cast him as a waiter at Rick's, and told him to do everything he can, up to abd including jumping up and pissing on their table, to prevent Ilsa and Rick from hooking up. Remember that sketch in SNL with Fred Armisen as the weathervane character removed from Wizard of Oz? Surely it was based on Hatari's Buttons. Was that sketch written after seeing this movie. Abbot and Costello are the souls of wingman discretion by comparison.

Not only is he a cockblocker of Wayne and Martinelli's blooming and unrealistic romance, not only does he steal all the ice normally used for cocktail hour (for his poor widdle ass after falling into the pig trough), not only does he kill an acacia tree to snare a barrel of monkeys, he steals the Earth Mother girl from the Froggy and the bandy-legged Hitlerjugend who've been fairly and gentlemanly dueling for her hand all through the first half of the film. And how? By pretending to be hurt! He plays the sympathy card, and ever the maternal caregiver, the animal husbander, she buys it. As Ursula the Sea Witch would say, "Pa-thetic!" 

Hawks has made dozens of films over his long career but Buttons represents a 'new' kind of character for Hawks, one so foreign to his 'isolated men in a group' dynamic here's no defense against him, like an invasive species. The closest thing to an antecedent is perhaps Major Horace Applegate (Charlie Ruggles) in Bringing Up Baby's or the US Army as a collective whole in I was a Male War Bride. But those were pure comedies, with major stars in the forefront and veteran support who knew their job was to give the stars room to breathe rather than forcing them off camera and sucking the air out of their lungs. 

Perhaps we can understand late period Hawks well by contrasting his two tame leopard-in-a-bathroom scenes, the one in Bringing up Baby (1938) and the one in 1962's Hatari!. In Baby, savvy Susan Vance, lounging in her cool NYC apartment, pretends she's being attacked by a leopard in order to get naive David (Cary Grant) to charge over to her and 'save' her (he doesn't yet know it's a tame leopard and she doesn't tell him). In Hatari!, smarmy Red Buttons takes advantage of a naive journalist's natural fear of a leopard walking in on her in the bath (unaware it's a tame leopard) to charge in with chair to pretend save her. But while Grant's over-acting was--and he knew you knew--a front, a grown man play-acting in a Cavellian comedy of remarriage, in Hatari! Red overacts and gesticulates as if an amphetamine-spiked Mickey Rooney crash landed in the middle of Rio Bravo and tried to turn the whole thing into an Andy Hardy picture before Hawks came back from the bathroom.

Anyway, the real problem is sex. The way Buttons cockblocks Wayne constantly, interrupting his woo at the worst times, is forgivable the first time. But by the second it's downright obnoxious, and the third, fourth, fifth... etc. completely toxic. Someone must have found this funny. But it's not. Perhaps. with Viagra still decades off, Hawks had lost all interest in sex's non-farcical aspects. But it's ridiculous and annoying that we're not supposed to wish Buttons would wind up gored by a bull so bidness could get down to. Wayne has to marry the girl (offscreen) at the end just so they can get a hotel room together in town, but then their bed is literally crashed by her three baby elephants, and Red of course, opening the door for them to come in and trash the place. Haw Haw.

Sorry to vent, but I've always hated cockblockers. I HATE THEM SO MUCH! Sex is hard enough to arrange on its own, especially in an uptight country like America. We don't need any more interruptions than we already have. I'm from the school of thought where when you see a buddy hooking up you don't interrupt, you quietly fend off the other suitors, dive on any grenades if needed, or otherwise just give him some room and leave him to it. I always thought Hawks felt the same, and I'm sure he did once. But just imagine if Bacall's attempted seductions of Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) were continually undone by Brennan's drunk character randomly barging into the room without knocking, lighting her cigarette before she can ask for a match, asking for change or talking about the dead bees, over and over and over... for three hours. Never giving them a chance to be alone together. But Brennan would never do that. Not ever. 

Anyway, Wayne has enough problems without Red as it is. Smoking cigarettes and getting older with every drag, the red sand radiation from The Conqueror mutating his cells, he seems always at risk of stretching his cowboy actor legs once too often in taming of wild animals, like he could wind up like Clark Gable in real life after that mustang in The Misfits (1961) and break something in himself that his body's too old to repair. Hawks and Wayne would be better off back in Hollywood, or on location someplace with an ocean breeze, instead of the animal dung and tsetse fly-ridden dust of Kenya before the rainy season. At this stage in his life, Hawks should be like John Ford, presiding over pointless Irish brawls in paradise instead of racing around after rampaging rhinos and wildebeests or giving a coiled Irish ham like Red Buttons an inch of improv leeway. 

To get back to the girls in Hatari!, all two of them, and all their lack of sex appeal. Now, pop culture has taught us a bit about eating disorders since 1962, I've had anorexic friends in AA point out all the telltale signs, like teeth that look like they're trying to crawl out of your mouth before they dissolve. So it's easy to see that, unless she was suffering from yellow fever while on location (which is probably and maybe even the cause), Italian model-turned-actress Elsa Martinelli had an eating disorder that pains one to look at her in the same aghast way one used to look at Ally McBeal. I could overlook that if not for other sins against Hawksian nature she commits, like when she declines a drink after her first long bumpy, dusty hard safari animal-wrangling jeep ride. In a Hawks movie, when you're all sore as hell from being bounced around, you just don't refuse a first-rate analgesic like alcohol! It's like saying your head hurts too much to take an aspirin! I can abide anything but that kind of idiocy. Bet that Agnes of yours wouldn't turn it down, as Cannino says to little Jonesy in The Big Sleep.  This is frickin' Hawks country you're in, Elsa, not frickin' Texas Female Baptist College on a Blake's bus tour! These people are men!

And I wish to god I was with 'em.

Unless they were in goddamned Africa.

Center: the normal-height human who won Ann Darrow

1965 - **1/2

This saga of interwoven young racers and the women who chase them is one of Hawks' harder-to-find and hardest to like later films. Shot in a full frame (1:85) ratio (at least that's the only version available), which is odd for a 1965 racing movie, it's on Amazon streaming finally and the stock car races are thrilling in a dusty STP sign and authentic stock car race kind of way, with great fiery spinouts and crashes so seamlessly interwoven into the storyline you'll swear the real actors are in the wrecks. Was Hawks' camera just hanging around waiting for crashes or were these stunt men? Or did he take stock footage of crashes and then reverse engineer them (paint a car to look like one that had already crashed, and then put one of his stars in a mock-up, etc.)? Knowing Hawks, all three and then some. A lifelong race car driver, he was one of the stunt drivers for the film (at age 69!) and unlike 90% of racing movies there's never a doubt which character is in which car.  The sound is so solid you can feel the engine throbbing in its exhaust RPM through your couch, even without a subwoofer.

It's been called a loose remake of Hawks' earlier racing pic, The Crowd Roars (1932 - see my review here), which is also distinctly 'lesser Hawks.' But Red Line is really part of the 'interwoven young lovers revolving around a cinematically-intriguing profession' genre, with its roots in trashy beach reads reaching as far back as Cinemascope jet trash like How to Marry a Millionaire (1957) The Interns (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1964), and still going strong by the late 70s. There was also a then in-vogue thing for stock car racing, traceable in drive-in product of the era, like The Young Racers (1963), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Spin-Out (1966), Fireball 500 (1966), Jack Hill's Pit-Stop (1968) and bigger budget stuff like Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1971). And of course this genre peeled out into the 70s in a lot of directions: the Easy Rider / Wild Angels biker genre; the Convoy / Smokey and the Bandit trucker genre; and the Monte Hellman Two-Lane Blacktop existential pink slip genre. So in a way, films like Red Line 7000 are the connecting thread between How to Marry a Millionaire and Mad Max

Red Line is Hawks down to its rims, but it lacks an axle; the wheels just spin right off the car and off into the gutter. None of the women are exactly Hawksian (Charlene Holt aside), they're far too masochistic and self-abasing (they're just racing groupies- with no other career or interests), and the men are all unattractively stunted on some level when it comes to women. Misogyny has always been anathema to Hawks except in his two racing pictures, where the men seethe with contempt over any girl turned on by their speed. Red Line includes the first time ever in Hawks' canon where a 'good guy' hits a woman. Worse, it's James Caan! He gets jealous over his new girlfriend (Hill) while shouting "Slut!" at her because she slept with his on-track rival, albeit before meeting him. Usually that's enough right there to warrant a man getting killed, or at least pistol-whipped into releasing Walter Brennan. Here the girl seems to be more concerned with the condition of her man's knuckles than her black eye.  These women soak up abuse, and then hurry to mop their blood off the floor so their man won't slip on his way to another woman's boudoir. 

That, in the end, is what's left over from The Crowd Roars, the ugly core of why I don't like that movie either. This antagonistic relationship between the groupies of the racing circuit, their slavish devotion arouses the self-hating drivers' death wish contempt. As one who's known and loved rock groupies as a youth, I sneer at the misogynistic sneering of these Hawks racers!

Still, I like Red Line gallons more than Hatari! For one thing, most people are on the same page, i.e. they're American and able to tap the Hawksian esprit d'corp. The one foreign accent here belongs to Mariana Hill--as a yeh-yeh vivant French racing groupie--but it works because she's actually American doing a French accent. A member of the Actor's Studio, Hill offers a classic example of what I meant earlier about American actors doing foreign accents being better than foreigners speaking English as far as overlapping screwball dialogue (ed note: I edited that out from the Hatari review, but you get the gist). There are also a lot more girls than in Hatari!, and they're way better looking. Also the boys aren't terrorizing any animals. They're not exactly doing anything heroic, just racing around in circles, but they're hurting only themselves, their tires, and eventually the ozone layer.

Like Hatari, Red Line operates in a day-night cycle, with nights at the motel and its nearby restaurant / tavern owned by Lindy (Holt). These bar scenes could have been the heart and soul to the film, but Hawks dulls them with some terrible royalty-free country-tinged electric rock, and way too-many weird-looking (presumably) real-life racing figures doing walk-ons. Lindy talks about knocking down a wall in her place, to make room for a band and dancing, now that Holly (Gail Hire)--a recent 'racing widow' dating Caan before swapping with Gabbi for Dan (Skip Ward)--has become a partner. Got all that? What the film really needs though, more than a rock band or a knocked-down wall, or romantic triangle entanglements, is a rewrite. There's no Leigh Brackett or Charles MacArthur or Jules Furthman or Ben Hecht to add the right sense of wit to the repartee. Asking a guy you're having a one-night stand with to: "tell me about the other girls" is an example of the kind of numb-nuts dialogue they would have tweaked to be witty and wild and sharp and alert, cutting through the layers of crap instead heaping them on. Even Hawks might have changed it to "Who was the girl, Steve?" instead of something so dull and flat "tell me about the other girls" --i.e. acidly curious about why he's such a shit instead of being a blank Westworld automaton eager to take notes of all the geisha-like submissive states that please her prospective new beau. As I wrote awhile back about The Crowd Roars, one came away realizing that Anne Dvorak and Joan Blondell were teaching not only Cagney about women, but Hawks as well. But in this film one gets the impression he forgot all over again, but no girl present was up to the challenge. Blondell and Dvorak would have put these men in a headlock and beat sense into them with their heels. 

And as always with Hawks, music is more than just a lull in the action, it's as essential to the bonding of the group as cigarettes (though there are but few of those this time), pouring drinks (again less emphasis than usual with Hawks), and sitting down to dinner at restaurant tables where you know everyone in the place on a first name basis, including the owner/waitress. But then there's the fake band playing fake 'rock' (ripping sax solo and no sax player, drummer barely even hitting his skins, etc--no relation whatever to the music) and the dancing all starts to resemble some terrible AIP beach party freak-out. 

Far better use is made of motel patio pool and a Pepsi machine, the strip of rooms and lights on the pool all paint a very vivid and familiar portrait to anyone who's ever been drunk at a motel and been out trying to find the ice machine while seeing double and getting picked up by a girl you hope is not a prostitute or a shakedown honeytrap. Gabbi comes onto Caan out there while he's getting a Pepsi and it's a groovy scene. Gabbi's supposed to be Dan's girl, so why is she pouring it on? 

It doesn't make sense but what does? And Holly thinks she's unlucky, a kind of black widow of the race track, so wants to avoid Dan's love so she doesn't jinx him. The team owner's tomboy daughter (Laura Devon) champions the towheaded oaf played by John Robert Crawford (he seems way too big and heavy for a racer, like a 200 pound jockey), who throws her over as soon as he wins a single race. But don't worry, though they went on one date and he blew her off after winning his first big race, she goes running to his hospital bed after he's back on the bottom. It's sickening, the kind of thing Hawks never stooped to before.

Hawks' films at their best offer a utopian ideal of professional competence and stalwart support that is tested against terrible danger. It's the sort of thing that, as a man, is as heartening as an evening out with your cool older brother and his friends when you're ten years-old, But in the comedies that stalwart support gives way in the wake of a wild woman and the existential terror of sex, with death revealed below like a trapdoor opening to Hades. The same mythic problems of his comedies muddles his latter adventures, like Red Line 7000; the casting, usually so spot-on with Hawks, seems here culled wholesale from a Where the Boys Are post-spring break yard sale. There's a feeling Hawks didn't rehearse them too much; that they didn't know each other that well before being thrown into a scene. And Hire is a real liability. The great Ed Howard sums up Hire's performance eloquently, getting at the fundamental problem of later Hawks, implying he was losing his Svengali ability to turn normal girls into 'Hawksian women' with deep, sexy voices, which for Hire failed though Hawks didn't seem to notice:  How could Hawks, always justly acclaimed for the quality of the performances he could coax out of nearly anyone, have thought this was acceptable?" 

Personally, her awful performance doesn't bother me that much (and I just fast forward past her song), and more than Bacall she seems to be imitating Paula Prentiss in Man's Favorite Sport? who does a kind of playful take-off on the Hawksian woman. That was fine because it was true to Prentiss' own persona, and done with real affection. With Hire and the other kids though, they either need more rehearsal time, a decent script, decent sets, or all of the above. James Caan's whole thing of how he only wants to sleep with virgins and not any 'secondhand' stuff seems like a problem made up by a man who was pushing 70 in the age before Viagra, angry at his libido for giving out right before the arrival of "the pill." Caan's obsessive Victorian era jealousy leads to a fight with Skip Ward (Hank in Night of the Iguana, where he was perfectly cast since he was supposed to be a sincere dimwit), the only guy who's not an ass, and as a result Hire goes to see him and his new girlfriend, a sexy French racing enthusiast who first shagged the repulsive cornfed oaf. That's life, man, but just seeing Hire there sends Caan into a fury. And we're somehow supposed to care? Robert Mitchum he isn't. 

I mention Mitchum of course because the presence of Charlene Holt (right) made me think of El Dorado, again with Caan, made (hard to believe) the following year. There the the star wattage of both Wayne and Robert Mitchum boosted her own charm level considerably; as their "shared" girl (she says she's more than enough for both of them --we believe her) she plays off their grounded energy marvelously, never trying to steal a scene or do more than her natural-if-limited talent allows. Here there's not a watt to be found for Holt to light up with, and the problem is Hawks doesn't know it. He's forgotten what's important as far as where to point the camera when it's not on the race track and when to recognize a scene is dead and either rewrite it, recast it, or cut it altogether. Wayne could have reminded him, Leigh Bracket would know too and only they probably had the clout to at that moment.

Luckily, there's the racing to save it: unlike so many racing movies, thanks to distinct color coding you can always tell which car is whose and what they're doing to each other, especially as the furious Caan tries to run Skip Ward into the wall. But the thing is, the shots between drinks or drinks between shots are undone since there's no male group camaraderie (only competition) though there's some scenes with the girls bonding by themselves (they're never catty or competitive, even when dating each other's 'second hand' cast-offs), there's not nearly enough drinking or smoking.

Maybe that's the key to good Hawks morale - take away the booze and the tobacco and the coolness dissipates to nothing. Maybe that's why Hawks returned to the western for his last two films, thus doubling his western output. Hard to believe he'd only made two up to that point, and that they were two of the genre's best -- RED RIVER and RIO BRAVO. 

Why they're the best has something to do with loyalty and a code of honor deeper than Fordian military school blarney and sentimental fascism, but when that current of loyalty is undercut or misused in a Hawks film, the whole enterprise begins to drift loose. It's a problem we men in general have, this weird thing where as soon as a girl comes into our lives we try to make her into our mother and then feel suffocated by what we've projected, desperately looking for a way out of a cage we're too numb to realize we built around ourselves and doesn't really exist, and so we cage ourselves twice over by trying to escape her all over again.

But Howard, most of us left this cage, long ago... the marshall came and took Joe Burdett, and we moved out of the jail back to the comfort of the hotel. We don't even pass out cigars anymore. We don't, because there's no 'where' to go once you're everywhere at once. Now the only aspect of our lives we can't duplicate with an image, a keyboard and a mouse is that feminine vice clamp flytrap magnet that pulls us ever inwards towards our projector eye self. To not blaze away from its gravity with as much horsepower as we can cram under that mortal hood takes raw courage; every second we don't press that pedal down is a victory. As Tom Waits sang- "If you get far enough away / you'll be on your way back home." Racing around in an endless oval, these maniacs avoid that risk, kind of - they don't go home, but never get far enough away from it, either, or even see a single sight. If only there was a reason for winning  that boiled down to something more than a junky's fear of withdrawal, a fear strong enough to conquer even his fear of death... or intimacy.

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